Mark Becker Sentenced to Life in Prison, Thomas Family Speaks
By Dave Franzman, Trish Mehaffey & The Associated Press
ALLISON — Mark Becker has been sentenced to life in prison with no possibility for parole. Becker, 24, was convicted last month of shooting and killing former Aplington-Parkersburg coach Ed Thomas in June 2009. A jury rejected Becker’s claim of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Ed Thomas’ sons Todd and Aaron Thomas were among family members who spoke Wednesday before a judge sentenced Becker. They told Becker they struggle not to hate him and hope he gets psychiatric help. But they made clear their resentment.
Aaron Thomas said Becker doesn’t understand the damage he’s done, adding “nor do I think you care.” He also believes there was a “devil tyrant” in the weightroom that day but it wasn’t the coach who worked with young people to become the best they could be.
Becker referred to Ed Thomas as a devil tyrant during a police interview. Aaron Thomas told Becker it wasn’t enough that he shot his father seven times but then stomped on him and cursed him. “This was the action of not only a coward, but the action of a heartless murderer, who did the work of the devil that day,” he said.
Aaron said the toughest part of him is when he looks at his three sons and thinks about their grandpa being taken from them. “Their sense of safety stripped from them by Mark Becker,” he said. “I would love for Mark Becker to explain to my three sons why he killed their grandpa.” Aaron said his three sons, ages 6, 4 and 2, have dealt with the killing in different ways. “I can’t tell (6-year-old Owen) not to be scared or that nothing will happen, as he witnessed it. He knows his grandpa was murdered by Mark Becker.” Aaron said his 4-year-old “just locks up and gets stiff” when he sees Becker’s picture on television. “It’s too bad you made the choices you made,” he said. “You’ll never understand how much you hurt our family, nor do I think you care.”
Thomas’ relatives frequently have spoken about their religious faith in dealing with the coach’s death. In his statement, Aaron again spoke of his faith in God and his certainty that Becker’s true penalty still awaited him. “Your worst punishment is still to come,” he said, “when your time on Earth is over and you have to answer to God for the murder of my father.”
It was a departure for Ed Thomas’ sons to hold Becker accountable for his actions on June 24, when he walked into the Aplington-Parkersburg High School weight room and opened fire at his former coach.
“Every day as you live in jail, I want you to reflect on what you stole from us,” said Todd Thomas, his pregnant wife standing beside him, minutes before a judge sentenced Becker to life in prison. Todd said as he reflected on his dad’s brutal murder, it has been difficult to put all of his feelings into words. He’s had times of great happiness thinking of all the wonderful memories but those are mixed with feelings of hatred and sadness.
“I also have felt very sympathetic for the community, the families, especially your brother Scott, and all the kids that witnessed this horrific crime,” Todd said. He said the irony is that the one person Becker wanted to hurt is doing better than “all of us.” He knows his father is in heaven and “having the time of his life.”
The main lesson, a constant, he learned from his father is the gift to choose. “And as we make these choices, we need to be prepared for the consequences that may follow,” Todd said. “Dad has been preaching this message for as long as I can remember, and I know you Mark, have heard this lesson.”
While they again acknowledged that Becker suffered from a severe mental illness, this time they focused on the 24-year-old’s premeditation. “No one else grabbed the gun that day. No one else pulled the trigger,” Todd Thomas said. “No one else, like a coward, brutally murdered my father on June 24 in front of over 20 innocent kids.”
Ellen Thomas, Aaron’s wife, told the court that she found it impossible to explain what happened to Ed Thomas’ grandchildren. She said, “how do you explain someone took a gun and shot it?”
Jan Thomas said Wednesday she asked “why, why and more whys” of how her husband Ed who had never been in fist fight ends up dead from a gunshot. “How can someone gun down a man that only ever wanted to help young people grow into the best men and women they can be, the best community member, the best employees, the best spouses and parents they could be — be shot so brutally by one of those young people for whom he had only wanted the best.” Jan Thomas almost made it through her emotional victim’s impact statement before letting tears flow.
Ed Thomas’ sisters, Teresa Morrison and Susan Reynolds, also read statements about missing their brother and not understanding how someone like him who has been a servant of God was murdered.
Morrison said she wished she had known him better. Her best memory of him was when she was a child and she asked Jan to tell Ed not get her a doll for Christmas, as he always did, so Ed gave her a basketball. “I am very proud to have found out how Ed impacted so many people’s lives in such a good and positive way. I still wonder why Mark had such anger and hatred toward Ed to murder him.”
Reynolds, who lives out of state, so her statement was read by a victim’s advocate told Becker he would have to live with this murder for the rest of his life. “One of my greatest sorrows is that Ed’s grandsons will not be able to see their grandfather, learn from his life.” Her only comfort was knowing someday she would see her brother again in heaven.
The statements showed the agony that Thomas’ family had endured. During Todd Thomas’ comments, even the judge wiped away tears.
After listening to the statements, Iowa District Court Judge Stephen Carroll sentenced Becker to life without the possibility of parole. Last month a jury convicted Becker of first-degree murder, rejecting his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Judge Stephen Carroll made a statement from the bench, saying “there is no satisfactory explanation for how someone who never even had a fist fight in his life ended up dead from a gunshot wound.” The judge emphasized that Becker’s actions affected countless other people. He noted that Ed Thomas often spoke of the choices individuals made. “Mr. Becker, you have brought unresolved chaos to their lives, and chaos is evil,” Carroll said. “Coach Thomas was right, Mr. Becker. We are free to choose, that is what makes us human. “That freedom to choose means freedom to choose good and freedom to choose evil.”.
The judge also made comments about cuts in funding for mental illness, saying “we are engaging in a dangerous trade off by not funding mental illness treatment and the decrease in funding mental health means an increased risk to the public. In hindsight an untreated Mark Becker was a danger to society”.
Judge Carroll rejected the motion for a new trial, in which defense attorney Susan Flander argued the judge improperly refused to issue certain jury instructions she had requested. Judge Carroll ruled that Flander’s requested jury instructions gave an incomplete version of what would happen to Becker if he were convicted.
Ed Thomas was a winner on the football field, amassing a 292-84 record and two state titles in 37 seasons as a head coach — 34 of them at Aplington-Parkersburg. He coached four people who have played in the NFL. He also was a community leader, helping Parkersburg rebuild after nearly one-third of the 1,800-person town was wiped out in May 2008 by a tornado that killed six people.
During the trial, no one disputed that Becker had broken into his father’s gun cabinet, loaded a .22-caliber pistol and drove about 10 miles to the high school weight room, where Ed Thomas was working with 22 football and volleyball players. Becker walked inside and approached Thomas. He fired six or seven rounds, fatally wounding Thomas, then kicked him and stomped on him. He cursed Thomas, then walked out of the building.
Prosecutors and defense lawyers agreed that Becker had paranoid schizophrenia. He suffered episodes in his house, terrorizing his parents and forcing them to call sheriff’s deputies to take him to the psychiatric ward of a Waterloo hospital. Sometimes, his delusions focused on Ed Thomas, whom he believed was appearing in his home and trying to assault him.
Mark Becker appeared in court Wednesday wearing a blue jumpsuit, with the same shaggy hair he sported at trial and a new beard. He carried a Bible. Becker smiled at his family when he came into the Butler County District courtroom but there was no smile when he left. Each Thomas family member looked in his eyes as they gave their, sometimes bitter and angry, statements to him for about 45 minutes. He seemed to listen but showed no emotion.
The sentencing hearing was a foregone conclusion. After denying a request by Becker’s lawyer for a new trial, Carroll listened to the victim impact statements, then handed down the mandatory life term. The judge also ordered Becker to pay $150,000 to Ed Thomas’ estate, $16,600 in lawyer fees and $53,000 for expert psychiatric witnesses. He didn’t address how Becker could pay the charges.
Public defender Susan Flander said Becker will appeal the verdict.